Conservatives and liberals play the game of politics differently, Hazlitt wrote, because they have different motivations. Liberals are motivated by principles and tend to believe that personal honor can be spared in political combat. They may, in fact, become vain about their highmindedness. Hazlitt condemns the mildness as a mistake, both in moral reasoning and in political strategy. “They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse.”
The conservatives, on the other hand, start with a personal interest in the conflict. Not wishing to lose their hold on power, they are fiercer.
That certainly got my attention. But what really sent my beanie spinning was this: Mr. Hazlitt wrote “On the Spirit of Partisanship” in 1820.
That would be the year eighteen twenty, C.E.
Almost 200 years ago — a hundred years before women could even vote — Hazlitt zeroed in on the crucial differences between liberals and conservatives with respect to rhetoric, tactics, and spine. He wrote:
They [conservatives] never give an inch of ground that they can keep; they keep all that they can get; they make no concessions that can redound to their own discredit; … if they pause it is to gain time; if they offer terms it is to break them: they keep no faith with enemies: if you relax in your exertions, they persevere the more: if you make new efforts, they redouble theirs. While they give no quarter, you stand upon mere ceremony. While they are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, you talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanit*…
Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them—to treat them according to your own fancied dignity.
I was going to highlight some of that passage (a lot of it actually, especially that last sentence). But that just seemed silly when I could simply suggest that you read it again: “Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them—to treat them according to your own fancied dignity.”
Exactly. And therein lies the problem, as obvious as it is intractable. Here’s more from our new friend Mr. Hazlitt:
It might as well be said that a man has a right to knock me on the head on the highway, and that I am only to use mildness and persuasion in return, as best suited to the justice of my cause; as that I am not to retaliate and make reprisal on the common enemies of mankind in their own style and mode of execution.
It might as well be said? It is in fact often said. And it always sounds the same to me:
Please Sir, I beg you to consider that your smashing my head in, was…hmm, how ever shall I put this without offending you?…well, if I may say so, what you did there with my brain case was rather… impolite, causing as it did no small amount of harm to my skull. And I do apologize, sincerely, for having momentarily experienced the shameful urge to smash in your head, Sir, in return, perhaps thereby discouraging you from continuing in your most unfortunate habit of cranium-bashing. But don’t you worry: you can rest assured, Sir, that I will not respond in kind. No. Because I am a better person than that. That is why in response to your bloody assault, I have responded to you instead with…this mild, verbal rebuke.
I understand perfectly the revulsion at the very idea of lowering oneself to the level of the base and brutal. No one who genuinely strives to maintain high standards of respect and conduct toward their fellow humans feels at ease with it; it is repulsive. But as I have said many times in this space, liberals make a fatal miscalculation when they automatically, on principle, eschew the use of weapons and tactics their conservative enemies routinely use against them. And the reason this is so is because playing nice with bullies does not work. Those who insist on maintaining highminded dignity in response to bullies must account for the abject failure of liberalism to make significant inroads in the vicious political climate of the last thirty years — to say nothing of the experiences of every schoolyard kid who was viciously bullied and didn’t fight back, hard.
I realize that my argument can be misconstrued in significant ways. I am not advocating taking this approach at every single opportunity; clearly, in many cases it would be counterproductive. Further, on the surface it sounds a lot like “But Mom! He started it — he hit me first!” I would suggest however, that Mom needs to look at this on a deeper level. It matters, from a moral and ethical standpoint, whether (a) that statement is actually true, and (b) whether it is the big brother or the little brother who is making this claim. If the big brother in fact initiated (or escalated to) the use of violent force against his smaller sibling, then he is a bully. (Perhaps a budding young conservative?) He has the advantage of superior size and strength as well as a better-honed sense of the harm he can cause without consequence. But more importantly, he has no compunction about wielding these advantages to subjugate, injure, harm and oppress a smaller child who cannot effectively resist him. If the little brother does strike back — or, say, resorts to fighting dirty after he has been pinned to the ground — can we fairly call the little brother a bully? Of course not. Can we say he is “just as bad” as his older brother, because he fought back? No, we cannot. Violent acts undertaken in self-defense are nearly universally acknowledged as morally justified (if not morally required), for the obvious reason that it is the instigator, not the victim, who is in the wrong. A victim who fights back is not an asshole.
Worse, liberals (and moderates) make a dangerous mistake by believing that conservatives are not really their “enemies,” at least not in the sense of trench warfare, and that nothing of significant value — death, disease, famine, widespread human misery, pointless suffering — is truly at stake. This represents a spectacular error in judgment: government policies have consequences, and some of those consequences are indeed death, disease, famine, widespread human misery and pointless suffering, both in the U.S. and abroad. “Their object is to destroy you,” is not a metaphor, as in someone trash talking about their team beating yours in a football game. The situation is more like a football game where the conservative team is comprised entirely of sadistic, reckless, sociopathic bullies who get off on damaging other people even more than achieving their own success. The game starts, and Team Conservative starts marching down the field spraying fire from automatic weapons, while Team Liberal lies bleeding all over the field choking out the words with their last dying breaths, “Now, now, that wasn’t nice. And I feel I must point out to you gentlemen that your behavior was entirely against the rules, not to mention poor sportsmanship!” (The refs are all dead — they were the first ones to go.)
You can of course believe that someone is not really your mortal enemy, but it does not change the reality, at least not in the eyes of those who have in a very real sense declared war on you. If conservatives cannot destroy you, they may settle for dominating you or marginalizing you. But it will only be a temporary reprieve (if one can even call it that), because right-wing conservatives have unilaterally declared war on liberals, on liberalism, and their intention is to destroy it. And they are unapologetic, merciless bullies.
The roots of this unfortunate paradigm lie in the well established phenomenon of psychological projection: that is, the ruthlessness, depravity and viciousness on display in the extreme conservative mindset is (a) utterly alien to a person with normal empathy whose natural inclination is to happily cooperate in an effort to help others, and (b) projected by conservatives onto liberals, thus rationalizing and justifying conservatives’ own views and actions. (“My god! Liberals are so ruthless, depraved and vicious, we Good People must do everything in our power to stop such foul evil from flourishing before it destroys the rest of us!”)
The flipside reflects the opposite: liberals project their own instinctual empathy and an inclination to cooperate for the betterment of all onto conservative bullies. (“They don’t really want to destroy me and everything I stand for, that’s just hyperbole. And of course they’re not really indifferent to people suffering. No, we just have a disagreement on how to make things better for everyone. So I will treat my conservative friends with the utmost respect, while I attempt to persuade them with reason and facts to come around to my way of thinking.”)
Both liberals and conservatives are wrong in their assessments, but only one side’s delusion presents the mortal danger. The other side’s delusion is what allows it to unfold, with consequences that are as tragic as they are foreseeable.
I mention all of this in light of a piece I recently read at Shakesville that challenged me to think more about it and explore it from another angle. Melissa McEwan is an incredibly thoughtful, generous and brave writer, one who I agree with on most issues. But on this topic she has things completely backwards, and flat-out wrong. She writes in the context of Rick Santorum’s near-victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses, and Dan Savage’s 2003 campaign to define “Santorum.” Readers may recall the details from my earlier post on the subject, but just to recap: because ex-Senator Rick Santorum is such a colossal flaming @$$hole of ginormous proportions, in 2003 Savage enlisted readers of his sex advice column to create a definition for the word “santorum,” saying, “There’s no better way to memorialize the Santorum scandal than by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.” Savage’s readers enthusiastically obliged, he held a vote, and the ultimate winner for the definition of santorum was “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” He created a website called “Spreading Santorum” to promote this definition, and it became (and still is) a prominent result on search engines when entering the ex-Senator’s name.
Someone who enjoys enormous amounts of privilege—Santorum identifies as straight, cis, male, white, Christian, and able-bodied; he is married, has children, and is personally wealthy—and endeavors to deny those privileges to other people, who actively works to entrench marginalization on the basis of his own unearned privilege, is a straight-up bully.
Bullies are gross, amirite? Rick Santorum, you’re gross. I don’t like you.
So far, so good. And then:
But, despite the fact that I do not like Rick Santorum, and despite the fact that I find him to be a contemptible bully, I don’t believe that he should himself be bullied in return.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. When the targets of Mr. Santorum’s contemptible bullying fight back, hard, that is not “bullying.” It is self defense. And if it prevents this unrepentant bully from becoming the President of the United States where he can bully every marginalized person in the nation and the world, it is all for the good. Metaphorically speaking, the man needs his ass kicked so hard that he is too humiliated to present his face in public ever again.
I am not speaking of physical violence here, but of merciless mockery and endless ridicule. Rick Santorum does not, and will not ever, respond to arguments based on reason and evidence. He will not respond to appeals to empathy for those fellow citizens of his who are not like him in every conceivable way. He will never, ever stop trying to foist on others by force of law his twisted views and his sick religion. (The man wants to ban birth control, fer chrissakes.) Ignoring him, or countering his vile bullshit with any tactic that does not effectively derail his political aspirations, will not make him go away: it will only allow and encourage him to spread and normalize his toxic ideology across broader swaths of our culture. People are naturally drawn to “winners.” When they see Rick Santorum bullying his way to the top of the Republican caucuses and getting away with it — while playing on peoples’ basest motives and stoking their most primal fears — they quite naturally latch on.
And I’m not even interested in any sort of ethical debate about what he “deserves” or doesn’t “deserve.” It’s just that I hate bullying—and meeting bullies with more bullying just entrenches a culture of bullying that normalizes abuse. If you hate Rick Santorum’s antagonistic brand of bullying fuckery, dishing out more of the same ultimately only maintains the culture in which a person of his position and influence can get away with that shit.
The argument she is making here, that “meeting bullies with more bullying just entrenches a culture of bullying that normalizes abuse,” is compelling on the surface. But I submit that what truly entrenches a culture of bullying that normalizes abuse is when better people, i.e. those who would never bully and find it revolting, refuse to take their gloves off and deal with it effectively. It just continues to spread, like the flu. And in any event, a victim fighting back is not a bully.
Point is: Bullying him back isn’t even effective, irrespective of its right- or wrongness.
Point is: “Bullying him back” isn’t what’s happening here — a victim of bullying is fighting back. And I’ll need to see those citations that support the claim that fighting back against bullies “isn’t even effective.” You know what isn’t effective? Not fighting back. (There exists an unconscionable number of gay suicides to prove it.) It would be very nice indeed if bullies could be politely reasoned out of continuing their reign of terror, or be persuaded to give a shit about the suicidal depression their actions cause, but I have seen no evidence — none — that this is in fact the case.
The truth is, bullying begets bullying.
This is true, but not in the sense she intends it. Bullying with impunity begets more bullies.
And Dan Savage’s campaign to make Santorum’s family name synonymous with something “gross” is some real bullying shit.
And then there’s this: Dan Savage does not speak for all gay men—and among that diverse community, there are gay men (and their allies) who consider it objectionable, and deeply counterproductive, to treat as “gross” something that is central to gay male sexuality.
Maybe I’m missing something, but in my view the entire point of Savage’s Santorum exercise was not “to treat as ‘gross’ something that is central to gay male sexuality” (or straight sexuality for that matter). The point was “to [attach] his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.” It is only presumed to be “gross” to Rick Santorum and his ilk. Sex can be messy of course but that doesn’t equate to “gross,” except in the deeply diseased minds of right wing conservatives.
And then there’s this: Melissa McEwan does not speak for all liberals — but unfortunately she sounds like too many of them. By far the most serious error McEwan makes is equating what Rick Santorum does with what Dan Savage does. I’ll let Savage ‘splain:
There’s a difference between taking a piss out of a powerful politician and mocking him, and bullying a 14-year-old kid to death in a rural area. And, Rick Santorum, who wants to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell”; have a federal anti-gay marriage amendment; prevent me from going to my partner’s bedside in a medical emergency, which is what that boils down to, when you get down to actual marriage; impoverish my husband and child, should I die, because I’m the sole income in our family; destroy my family. He would prevent me from adopting, if he could, and take our kid out of our home, if he could. He would literally destroy my family. I made a dirty joke at his expense, and I’m the monster.
Is there any dispute that these are not the facts? The historically marginalized gay community is a target and a victim of Rick Santorum. There would be no spreadingsantorum.com if Rick Santorum were not a vile bully.
“He would literally destroy my family.”
“Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them—to treat them according to your own fancied dignity.” –William Hazlitt.
I am very happy that Melissa McEwan is in the world. She has every right to create a safe space for herself and her readers on her own blog, in whatever way she sees fit. I often read Shakesville, and find it a welcoming respite from the rampant misogyny and fucknuttery that abounds on the Internet. But if one seeks a better world, that is one in which there is a lot less bullying, then equating fighting back with bullying is not only tactical mistake, it is a grave injustice to the victims — be they marginalized classes of people, or abused little brothers. Sorry, but victims who fight back are not as bad as their tormentors, nor does refusing to fight back effectively make you better than a bully. Especially if the bully goes on to bully others another day.
* “humanit” appears to be used here to mean “mankind,” whereas “douce,” is a Scot/Northern English derivation of the Latin dulcis (“sweet”), meaning quiet, sober, sedate or modest. I believe it is in this sense that Hazlitt employed the phrase when he wrote, “While [conservatives] are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, [liberals] talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanit…“